As a bird sings, some neurons in its brain prepare to make the next sounds while others are synchronised with the current notes, a coordination of physical actions and brain activity that is needed to produce complex movements.
Neuroscientist Daniel Margoliash and colleagues from the University of Chicago shows show for the first time, how the brain is organised to govern skilled performance.
The new study articled published in Nature shows that birds' physical movements actually are made up of a multitude of smaller actions.
"It is amazing that such small units of movements are encoded, and so precisely, at the level of the forebrain," said Margoliash in a statement.
"This work provides new insight into how the physics of producing vocal signals are represented in the brain to control vocalisations," said Howard Nusbaum.
By decoding the neural representation of communication, Nusbaum explained, the research may shed light on speech problems such as stuttering or aphasia - a disorder following a stroke - in humans.
And it offers an unusual window into how the brain and body carry out other kinds of complex movement, from throwing a ball to doing a backflip.
"A big question in muscle control is how the motor system organises the dynamics of movement," said Margoliash.
"Movements like reaching or grasping are difficult to study because they entail many variables, such as the angles of the shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers; the forces of many muscles; and how these change over time," he said.
"With all this complexity, it has been difficult to determine which of the many variables that describe movements are the ones that are represented in the brain and used to control movements," he said.
By looking at the physiological variables that the bird uses to control singing, the team was able to find something others had not noticed before: the precise timing between the firing of the neuron and the action connected with it.
Washington: Scientists have discovered that songbirds' brains coordinate singing with intricate timing, a finding that could lead to new understanding of human speech.
First Published: Saturday, March 02, 2013, 12:21